Reservists, DARPA, vendors fill technology gaps in a pinch

Military reservists in Iraq face new challenges every day, and IT workers among them are no exception.

But instead of waiting for the military development process to play out over a matter of years or for a lengthy bidding process to find a vendor to tackle their problems, many members of the citizen-soldier corps are taking IT matters into their own hands.

As U.S. and allied forces work to stabilize the country, several reservists are developing software to meet a variety of challenges, such as monitoring personnel movement, tracking pay and integrating spreadsheet files.

Recently, reservists launched the Theater Force Tracker-Forward database, which established a system for the Army to track troops as they move across the theater.

Before Reserve software coders developed the database, soldiers used spreadsheet files that weren’t integrated. The database provides one common operating environment, officials said.

There was an IT need and the reservists filled it. Since the war began, a cadre of vendors and federal agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also have pitched in with some small technological innovations to fill in the network gaps.

Translation device

One such development is the phraselator, a small electronic device that helps troops in Afghanistan and Iraq communicate with local residents. Another, the water purification pen, is a device the size of a small flashlight that makes water safe for troops to drink.

Both came as a result of a broad agency announcement the Defense Department released shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since then, several new technologies have been rushed through the development phase to the battlefields in Iraq.

Many Army and National Guard reservists, skilled in IT, have developed software, mostly Web-linked databases, as the need arose, according to Staff Sgt. Nate Orme, a public affairs officer from the 3rd Personnel Command out of Jackson, Miss.

Orme said their efforts have saved the Army money on contracted software development projects.

First Lt. Andres Sandin, signal officer for the 321st Ordnance Battalion, a Reserve unit from Charles Town, W.Va., said he created a software package, called MTF Inspector, that automates the way soldiers collect information on unit status.

“In August 2003, the 135th Rear Operation Center/377th Theater Support Command asked me to help them with the tedious work of having to open every single report to collect the information they need for their reports,” Sandin said. “On average, it would take them from a half to a full day of work to create their reports.”

Sandin’s application takes unit status reports from another program called Personal Computer-Army Status of Reserve and Training Systems (PC–ASORTS) and imports them to a Microsoft Access database or an MS Excel file.

The software asks users for the location of all PC–ASORTS reports and the location for the new Excel file. Then, the app opens one report at a time and extracts the Unit Identification Code, the name and the location of the unit. The app then writes that information to the new Excel file.

“Now it only takes from 30 to 60 minutes to create the reports,” said Sandin, who has co-owned a software systems company for the past 12 years.

Sandin said MTF Inspector was developed in Java and will run on any operating system.

Another program that tracks all Operation Iraqi Freedom theater convoys going in and out of Iraq was created by Capt. Eric Slover, the battle captain for the 450th Movement Control Battalion from Manhattan, Kan., Orme said.

Slover created an application that uses Access to build tables, queries and forms.

Slover and Sandin are two of more than a dozen Army soldiers who have developed apps in a pinch, officials said.

With the BAA, issued by top Defense officials after the terrorist attacks, hundreds of ideas flooded Pentagon offices.

Earlier this year, Ronald Sega, DOD’s director of Research and Engineering, said his office has begun focusing heavily on force protection in Iraq, which includes equipping Humvees with more protective armor.

Sega said troops can soon expect to see new counter-mortar radar systems and unmanned aerial vehicles that have been accelerated into production.

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